Can Australia's Robyn Denholm tame Elon Musk?
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Can Australia's Robyn Denholm tame Elon Musk?

"Robyn Denholm, the Telstra CFO, formerly of Tesla in Silicon Valley."

That was how the woman who is now arguably Australia's most prominent and powerful global executive was introduced at an accounting conference in Sydney on Thursday.

For a while now, media outlets (including this newspaper) have wondered how Denholm would be able to juggle one of the biggest jobs in corporate Australia - chief financial officer of Telstra, the most widely held retail stock in the country - with a board seat at Tesla, the $US60 billion ($83 billion) automaker led by Elon Musk, which has been through an utterly extraordinary few months.

Hard to tame: Billionaire Elon Musk got himself and Tesla into serious trouble with regulators after tweeting he had financing in place to take the company private.

Hard to tame: Billionaire Elon Musk got himself and Tesla into serious trouble with regulators after tweeting he had financing in place to take the company private.Credit:Bloomberg

The introduction at last week's event, from social commentator and demographer Bernald Salt, suggested this unusual situation had finally been resolved. But it was merely a slip of the tongue, and Denholm was quick to correct him. "I'm on the board of Tesla, even today," she said at the World Congress of Accountants event.

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Only a few hours later the situation had in fact been resolved, just not in the way most observers had anticipated. Denholm had accepted an offer to replace Musk in the chair seat at Tesla and simultaneously resigned from Telstra.

Faced with a choice between one of the toughest jobs in corporate Australia, and possibly the biggest and toughest job in the entire corporate world, she opted for the latter.

Few could begrudge her that - even though it does give Telstra CEO Andy Penn another headache to deal with as he takes the axe to thousands of jobs and slashes costs in an effort to turn the ailing telco around.

'Easy to underestimate'

So, who exactly is Robyn Denholm? Current and former colleagues, and others who have dealt with the respected tech executive, describe her as a smart corporate operator, with a tough character, who'll be a big loss for Telstra. "She’s excellent," one of these people says. "Easy to underestimate."

"I reckon all the egos in the US will struggle to comprehend how someone so self-deprecating got to this role"

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The 55-year old grew up in south-west Sydney. She graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in commerce, and later completed a master's degree at the University of New South Wales.

After stints at (now defunct) accounting firm Arthur Andersen and Toyota, she joined software firm Sun Microsystems in Sydney. That took her to the US, where she ended up spending 16 years, rising to CFO at Juniper Networks, an equipment maker.

Denholm joined the Tesla board in 2014 as its first female director, and was one of only two independent directors alongside media scion James Murdoch (previously considered the favourite to replace Musk as chair).

Critics of the Tesla board (including shareholders suing the company and Denholm) say she and the rest of the board should have done more to control Musk during his recent, well documented escapades. The US corporate regulator recently fined Tesla and Musk, and forced him to step down as chairman.

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Reining in the most celebreated entrepreneur of a generation, one whose behaviour has been highly erratic of late, sounds pretty daunting. But you get the sense Denholm is not at all afraid of a challenge.

“From my perspective, you may be special, but you have got to get on with it” Denholm said at the accounting event on Thursday. "Resilience in the workforce is a fundamental skill today."

Despite a string of recent scandals, investigations and lawsuits, Tesla reported its biggest quarterly profit to date last month.

Demand for the company's cars, including its cheaper Model 3 which is targeted at mainstream consumers, continues to be high. Making enough of them, without burning through cash, seems to be the problem.

It isn't all doom and gloom for Tesla, which reported its biggest quarterly profit to date last month.

It isn't all doom and gloom for Tesla, which reported its biggest quarterly profit to date last month.Credit:AP

As for Telstra, company sources didn't expect things to go this way.

Penn had repeatedly expressed confidence in Denholm's ability to manage both roles; and just last month a spokesperson told this newspaper she would not be in the running for the Tesla chair position.

That didn't transpire, and a search for Denholm's replacement has already begun.

John McDuling writes about business, media and technology. Previously he was a reporter for Quartz in New York, covered telecommunications and markets for the Financial Review, and worked in the finance industry.

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